Lopez accused of fund misuse

ENVIRONMENT Secretary Gina Lopez has been accused of “squandering millions” in public funds, displacing indigenous people, cutting trees and using her projections as environment advocate to corner government contracts that benefited her family’s business and foundation, her opponents claim.

Artemio Disini, Nelia Halcon and Ronald Recidoro, officials of the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, made the accusations in the opposition to the confirmation of Lopez that they filed before the powerful Commission on Appointments committee on environment and natural resources on Feb. 10. 

They opposed Lopez’s confirmation even as the indigenous people in Surigao del Sur affected by the mine closures and suspensions on Monday also filed their opposition to Environment Secretary Regina Lopez’s confirmation.

“Once the mining operations stop, [the indigenous people]  will be poor again,” the indigenous people’s tribal chieftains said.

Finance Department estimates show that about P821-million in local government revenues will be lost due to the Environment Department’s order to close or suspend the operations of 28 mining sites across the country.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III said in a statement Monday a total of 17 cities and municipalities in 10 provinces would be affected by the department’s order. 

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III
Dominguez, who earlier ordered local treasurers to submit their respective reports on the complete  revenue impact of the order, said three of the municipalities would lose revenues representing over 50 percent of their operating income if the affected mine sites were shut down or forced to suspend operations.

In an 11-page opposition letter, the Chamber of Mines officials claim that Lopez’s recent actions show an “undeniable bias against and antagonism towards large-scale mining, rendering her unfit and incapable of a responsible, fair, just and balanced implementation of the Constitution, the Philippine Mining Act and related laws and regulations, and of upholding personal interest and advocacies over public interest.”

They say Lopez has a poor track record for leading and managing environmental and eco-tourism projects and cite three environment projects that were awarded to her.

They also cite Lopez’s conflict of interest involving her family’s ABS-CBN Foundation Inc., for which Lopez was managing director, and its affiliates such as Bantay Kalikasan in acquiring contracts and making money out of the projects.

They say these were multi-million-peso projects that spanned several years under the previous administrations at the expense of the government.     

They identified the projects as the Sabsaban Falls Eco-tourism project in Palawan, the La Mesa Ecopark project in Quezon City and the Pasig River Rehabilitation project. 

Commission on Audit documents submitted by the complainants to the CA show that, in 1999, the Save La Mesa Watershed Project was started by the Lopez-led AFI’s Bantay Kalikasan in partnership with the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System. 

The project’s aim was to restore the 33-hectare La Mesa watershed that became a spoiled eco-location due to widespread illegal poaching and logging.

Five years after the rehabilitation plan, the La Mesa watershed was reopened to the public, and this time as the La Mesa Ecopark that now charge P50 per head upon admission and additional fees for swimming, biking, horse-back riding, and other recreational activities within the park.

A 2004-2009 COA audit report revealed that AFI had unilaterally decided to get another 15 percent over its 30-percent share in the La Mesa Ecopark’s net income.

Under a Memorandum of Agreement signed between the AFI, the MWSS and the Quezon City government, the parties agreed that the income from the La Mesa Ecopark would be shared three ways: Some 40 percent to go to the MWSS, 30 percent to the QC government and 30 percent to AFI.

“It was reported that since 2005, AFI, led by Lopez, has held on to all income from the project, and no distribution of the MWSS’ share has been done by the [Lopez] foundation,” the complainants said.

To remedy the breach, they said, the COA recommended that ABS-CBN Foundation immediately submit the annual financial reports and remit to the MWSS its corresponding share of income as required under the MOA.

Under the stint of then President Benigno Aquino III, the Lopezes were identified as among Aquino’s closest allies.

In 2010, the opposition letter says, Lopez was appointed by Aquino to head the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission project. 

“Instead of removing rubbish, the PRRC, headed by Lopez, had created more junk bungling its P17.7-million cleanup of Metro Manila’s biggest waterway,” the opponents said.

“The COA said that millions of pesos worth of recycling equipment had been rendered junk because the PRRC had only one working materials recovery facility or MRF out of the 10 recycling centers it committed to build over the last four years,” they said.

“The COA report concluded that ‘(This is) tantamount to wastage of funds and deprived the beneficiaries of the benefits that could have been derived therefrom’,” the CMP officials said.

Asked by television host Solita Monsod in her program about the fiasco on July 4, 2016, Lopez replied that she had not foreseen the need for the local government unit’s or LGU’s consent to provide space for the MRFs so they did not have a place to put up the planned facilities.

“To avoid further wastage, Lopez said she just gave away the equipment to LGUs and nongovernment organizations, and in the same breath implying that her responsibility over the equipment were now also transferred,” the CMP officials said.

“Lopez’s poor management of the river cleanup effort is evident with only one working MRF, the rest of the cleanup equipment have not been stored properly and are now rusting away, non-operational and deteriorated due to exposure to rain, heat and stray animals living inside the structures. More evidently, the Pasig river today remains dead, black and stinking,” the CMP officials told the CA.

In 2012, the CMP officials said the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) sought the closure of an eco-tourism resort (Sabsaban Falls eco-tourism project) started by the ABS-CBN Foundation in Palawan for its failure to secure the necessary permit/clearance for the project as required by the Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) for Palawan before it started occupying and converting Sabsaban Falls in Brooke’s Point town into an eco-tourism resort. 

Lopez was then managing director of AFI, according to the CMP officials.

AFI, they said, should have secured an individual SEP clearance for the occupation of Sabsaban Falls, development of the place, cutting of trees, construction of cottages and others.

In view of the supposed violation, Teodoro Baltazar, head of the PCSD Enforcement Unit, filed a complaint in the PCSD Adjudication Board against AFI managing director Lopez and 18 LGU officials who purportedly allowed the project to proceed without requiring a prior SEP clearance.

Baltazar petitioned the adjudication board to issue a cease and desist order against Lopez’s group, “until it has secured an SEP clearance from the PCSD.”

The CMP officials also said the Brooke’s Point Federation of Tribal Councils had also accused Lopez and AFI’s Bantay Kalikasan of failing to practice what she preaches when AFI’s construction crew forcibly took over their ancestral land at Sabsaban Falls in Barangay Aribungos, Brooke’s Point, Palawan. 

“Lopez and Bantay Kalikasan had planned to put up offices and ecotourism facilities—a hotel, restaurant, function areas – on the land,” they said.

“Already, 25 trees had been cut and four lodging structures had been put up for which the foundation was charging P25,000 for a day’s stay,” they alleged. With Anna Leah E. Gonzales and Julito G. Rada  

Topics: Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III , Secretary Gina Lopez , Artemio Disini , Nelia Halcon , Ronald Recidoro , Chamber of Mines of the Philippines , DENR , Commission on Appointments
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